The Place Beyond The Pines makes it clear: Derek Cianfrance is being touted as an important new voice in American independent filmmaking, partially because he has had the fortune of working with similarly touted actors like Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling (star of both Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines) and now Bradley Cooper, and partially for what are perceived as ambitious and personal stories. Admitteldy, Cianfrance has an admirable sense of ambition, first spinning a making-and-breaking relationship through various timelines denoted by their color tints in Blue Valentine and now turning in a two-generation, three-act epic in The Place Beyond The Pines. With those names and that scope, it’s easy to buy into the hype despite Blue Valentine’s misogynist undertones and somewhat messy storytelling, but with The Place Beyond The Pines, it’s a testament to the power of media that the myth has not been thoroughly debunked. If you thought that deciding at the last minute to turn Michelle Williams’ Cindy into a promiscuous and irresponsible girl just before the moral-testing climax, well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Pines, a tale of fathers and sons, of traits being passed from one generation to another, would have nothing to say about parenthood if it was not for turning mothers into worthless stereotypes and remarking at every turn the importance of having a white father in your life (regardless of whether that father is a criminal or not). Indeed, by the time the story has finally come together at its third act, we have seen two mothers and one black father fail, but everything seems like it would be better if some “real” father would have been there for the child. Besides the characteristically problematic politics of Cianfrance films, Pines also reveals the clichés that the director relies on in a way that would almost certainly be seen as self-parody if not for a desperate attempt to be taken seriously.
The film begins with the biggest cinematic cliché in independent film, a consequently uninspired tracking shot following the back of the head of a heavily tattooed Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling). Luke walks past screaming fans as he puts on his jacket, gets on his motorbike, and performs a stunt, showing off tattoos with a cigarette in his mouth the whole time, another detail that could easily be taken as a parody of Gosling’s stoic (read: monotonous) star persona. Luke is trying to win back Romina (Eva Mendes) and discovers he had a child by her before he took off at some point in the past.
Our sympathies rest with Luke: Romina never told him she was pregnant, and he immediately resigns himself from traveling in order to care for his child, who he clearly loves very deeply. The bad guy is Romina’s new boyfriend/husband, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who has no respect for the biological father and makes him sleep on a bed while Luke is trying to build cribs and buy presents. Luke is white trash, but he’s white trash with a sense of humanity; unfortunately, Ryan Gosling is even more one-note here than usual, turning his blankness and refusal to instill Luke with any sense of character turning what should be a character drama into an un-insightful slog. Cianfrance fares no better. He gives us the basics but refuses to flesh out and interpret the character in any meaningful way. It’s painful enough to watch as Gosling delivers bad lines with a laughable demeanor (his slight cackle and upward inflection on “you’re a fuckin’ pussy” is a highlight) but it’s a shame that Cianfrance refuses to show the interesting parts of Luke’s past or career and instead rushing a series of bank robberies (that spiral out of control relative to Luke’s level-headedness in a laughable fashion) that lead to his death.
The next vignette, anchored by Bradley Cooper as Avery Cross, the cop who shot Luke, is not much better when all is said and done. Out of fright, Cross tells a small (but ultimately inconsequential, although the film and its defenders might plead otherwise) lie to make sure his shooting was lawful, but as he recovers from his own injury, he aims to end the corruption in the police department. The corruption in the department is deployed with an appalling heavyhandedness, and the story’s Serpico-imitating turn never works up any level of suspense or scope. Cooper is charismatic and convincing as Avery, a fitting match to play a charismatic and convincing character, but his story ends as soon it gets interesting.
The worst moments of the story, however, are the sexist flourishes. We get to see the other cops make fun of Avery’s wife, Jennifer, for her “balls” and caring what her husband is doing. This makes the cops unlikable, admittedly, but that we sense marriage troubles throughout the act and it suddenly concludes when he convinces his commanding officer (Ray Liotta, who has over-embraced his typecast) shows no apologies on Cianfrance’s part. Magically, It is 15 years later, the police department is cleaned up, and Avery is divorced now—our only conclusion is that his wife could not stand Avery putting so much time into a genuinely good thing. Of course, their son A.J. (Emory Cohen, frankly awful) is messed up nearly beyond any hopes of repair from living with his mother for so long, so he wills himself into life with his father.
So the third act begins, and through some marvelous coincidence, A.J. meets Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan, barely better). They engage in stereotypical bonding through before finding out who the other is, and although the entire act is about a search for a father, we see very little interaction between the kids and their fathers.
Pines demands to be seen as a film novelistic in scope; in reality, there is nothing more to it than its plot, which is ridden with clichés and unbearable dialogue, a boring journey from one scene you saw coming from a mile away to another you saw coming from even further. Most of this is captured without any commendable stylistic cinematography. There’s the occasionally pleasant tracking shot, particularly of vehicles on an open road surrounded by greenery, but as a whole, it resorts to conventional shot structures, struggles to frame characters and conversations in a grammatically relevant way, and fails to find any captivating images. There is a tendency to underexpose good landscapes, to cut shots off abruptly, to return to variations of shot/reverse shot with a sudden and complete disregard for off-screen space. Incompetence is annoying, but Cianfrance’s rare attention to film grammar results in infuriatingly condescending sequences in which characters will repeat the action of a different character with the exact same shot structure, creating a superficial link between the two that fails to hold up beyond its presentation. Because Cianfrance avoids chances to develop his characters, leaving the most interesting and revealing parts of the story to take place in the temporal ellipses, the observations never penetrate the surface. Pines would rather tell a preachy and morally repugnant tale of fatherhood than to actually turn the fathers and sons who populate it into real people.
If there is one problem with Pines that stands a head above the rest, it’s that final mark, the tendency to turn characters into archetypes instead of convincing individuals. It goes without saying that for an ensemble piece like Pines, a lack of proper characterization can be devastating. Indeed, interpreting Pines becomes an offensive endeavor. The white-trash anti-hero Luke mentions that he had no father, so “look how I turned out.” His son turns out at least as bad, and he constantly searches for Luke. His surrogate father Kofi, whose race is a factor in the story at least twice, is unable to raise a good child (a potential fix and foil with his daughter has one unhelpful appearance in the film). A.J. is messed up too, but he lived his whole life with his mother; it’s only when he moves to dad’s house that he has a hope for getting better. Cianfrance’s women are stereotypes, with Jennifer being overbearing and unsupportive during her husband’s tragedy while Romina is helpless to all the men around her. At the end of the day, the only sense of redemption is Jason finally succeeding in his father’s footsteps and A.J. embracing his father. Who knows what happened to the poor mothers and present fathers who worked for 15 years plus to raise their kids, but as Cianfrance leaves us the same way he left us in Blue Valentine, with no choice to assume that the women let it all happen.